By Gerson Poyk
I live completely alone, but I can still live well enough because I don’t depend on anyone else. I can eat three meals a day. I can live in one rented room where there’s a couch, a bathroom and a kitchen. At the back outside, there’s a covered roof that extends a long way out where I can keep the cooker, dish rack, bucket and bike. There’s a second-hand television in my main room that keeps me entertained every day.
If only my daughter hadn’t married a man who worked in the Middle East. Maybe I wouldn’t be living alone because she would have been able to take care of me, and my two grandchildren could have entertained me. But thankfully my daughter can help me out a little financially. For a long time since my wife passed away, our situation has been pretty tight. My wife used to cook food out back to sell for a little income. She would cook spiced fish, uduk rice, chili soybean, grilled fish, grilled eggplant and a chili sauce that I liked to call ‘chili Inul sauce’.
Every day I travel around on my bike selling food. I pedal from before dawn, sometimes till afternoon, and sometimes till late in the day. I target my sales at the traditional markets and the multi-story project sites where day laborers work.
But after my wife passed away everything became a mess. My daughter was forced to drop out of school in the tenth grade because she had to help me. Every evening I had to cook carrying on as my wife had shown me. However, after cooking I had to rest for half a day which meant that the food was not all sold every day. Luckily my daughter knew a young woman from the island of Madura who sold drop cakes.
“Dad, I want to do what the woman from Madura is doing,” said my daughter.
“She dropped out of primary school but she could still get to run a business,” she said.
“Ah, you shouldn’t make fun of her,” I said.
“The only assets she has is a small cooker and one rice flour dough pot. She runs a business selling drop cakes. She’s very busy, dad,” said my daughter. ”I want to sell drop cakes like her,” she continued.
“But what about the food business your mother left behind? Do we have to forget about that? Would the income from that be enough for the two of us to survive?” I asked.
”That’s easy. All it needs is one table. Some of the food you cook can be displayed on that one table and you can sell some of it from your bike. What do you think?”
So three days later, there was a small food stall in the traditional market. At the side of the table was a hissing cooker wafting the aroma of fresh drop cakes. My daughter’s drop cake “lecturer”, the woman from Madura, was selling not far away next to my daughter’s stall. Every day very early in the morning, my daughter would sell by herself in the market without me for company. After sleeping till eleven o’clock in the middle of the day, I pedaled my bike to the market and collected some of the food my daughter was selling. I rode around to the busy construction sites, the fences of busy factories and other places like that.
Early one morning, a young journalist from the tabloid Voice of the Market, no stranger to staying up all night, sat down in front of my daughter’s drop cake cooker. The young journalist fell in love with my daughter. He published a photograph of her and the woman from Madura prominently in his tabloid. The story was long and detailed and described the New Order-era government program called “candak kulak” that had provided small-scale capital. The program was long gone, vanished without a trace.
My daughter would go on to marry the journalist from the Voice of the Market.
Her friend the woman from Madura would hawk up and down the market until one day several months later a minibus driver also proposed to her.
Not long after that, my new son-in-law moved to the Middle East to work as a journalist for an oil industry magazine called Oil.
True neither of them did help me much as they studied while they worked there. My son-in-law was at university and my daughter finished her secondary school finals before going on to university. But they didn’t forget to think about my financial situation.
My daughter did sent me some money to use as start up capital to buy sandalwood and agarwood fans to sell in the Middle East, along with necklaces made from sandalwood and agarwood beads. Later they also asked for the sandalwood and agarwood offcuts that are used for burning in the incense burners of wealthy middle eastern people.
So I was busy with my new business as a sandalwood fan trader. Each month I would freight the aromatic commodity. I rented a small post office box to support my business activity. Everything was small. The post office box was small. The bedroom was small. But with all these small things, I was involved in a world that was wide and big! Although sales of sandalwood fans were brisk enough for me to be able to buy a block of land in Jakarta, my children urged me not to buy land to build a house in the city. My daughter thought it would just be destroyed by floods of both water and people.
Their thinking seemed pretty strange to me.
Every time I went to the post office to send products, I visited a small open-air food stall in the grounds of the post office for coffee or a bite to eat.
The owner of the food stall Misses Agus was being helped by her daughter who had a younger brother. He hadn’t been through the Islamic circumcision ceremony yet, called khitan. At first, I would only have breakfast there. Then I would visit every day to have lunch, and then dinner. Young uncircumcised Agus was very pleased whenever I did drop in. Usually if I had any spare change, I would give it to him as a present. Suddenly one day he showed me a heavy little piggy bank. It was full of the coins I had given him. It was a real surprise for me to see a child who had apparently been left by a father who had passed away. Young Agus’ older sister Julie had been a wonderful help to her mother. Almost every day she would work in the small food stall unless she had to wash clothes at home, sweep or hang out the washing.
“Where do you work, mister?” Julie asked one day.
“I work at home,” I answered.
“Where’s your office?” asked Julie.
“My office is as small as a box, a post office box!”
Julie laughed, “So when you go to work, you first have to turn into an ant!”
“Ah, don’t be silly,” I joked.
“Well, don’t underestimate ants. They have a lot to teach humans. They work together and cooperate without anger, without becoming emotional, like…”
“You’re having a go at me, aren’t you!” called her mother.
“So you’re emotional?” I asked.
“No, my mother is born from noble Javanese descent, but she’s now working in this humble little food stall,” said Julie.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s small, so long as it turns a dollar and makes a profit and hopefully turns this food stall into a building. This shop is larger than my post office box. That’s my shop. It only returns a little but fortunately I’m an ant, so I don’t eat much,” I joked. “Small people like us have to start small.”
“A post office box can not be bulldozed and relocated, but it seems that even if the rent is paid, this food stall can be taken away in a truck and piled up in the city depot.”
One day early in the morning when I arrived at the post office, I saw Mrs. Agus arguing. Two large men were carrying plates, pots, woks, cookers and other utensils and piling them into a pickup. It seemed that Mrs. Agus owed money to a village money lender. She just sat silently, staring blankly, with bright red eyes.
Although it was none of my business something inside me made me ask, “How much money do you owe?”
“Only three-hundred thousand rupiah. How could they do something like this! And after the agreement was to pay one thousand rupiah per day. Suddenly, he asks me to repay the whole loan because he says his house was flooded,” explained Julie.
“Where is the money…”
“I actually had the money, but yesterday I paid the doctor and bought blood pressure medicine,” said Mrs. Agus.
I was no longer being rational. I called out at once, “Man, put those things back in the food stall. Here, I’ll pay what Mrs. Agus owes you.” Then I pulled out three-hundred thousand rupiahs from my wallet.
“Wow, three hundred, and what about the interest? It’s been three years now and my money’s been locked up in this food stall. Five hundred…”
“There is no more money. Only three hundred. All right. Here’s the money.
“Yeah, well, here are your things back,” they said.
A short time after the debt collectors had gone, young Agus arrived home from school. The small, first grade child was surprised most as there was no food. I told him to buy packets of cooked rice for four people and then to help set up the stall so it didn’t look like a wreck.
After that incident, Julie would always visit my boarding room with food. She cleaned all the dirty things, and washed my clothes. She helped me pack the sandalwood and agarwood fans and helped cut up the pieces of agarwood. Then, when that was in order, she would help put them into boxes, write the senders’ and receivers’ addresses, before helping me carry them to the post office. She would also always check the post box and collect any mail from my daughter from overseas.
Julie became my assistant. Although she had only finished junior secondary school, she was a good writer and she was quick with numbers.
But after six months, there was a disaster. The fatherless child Julie now all of a sudden found that she had a father in me and at the same time fell in love with me. I was racked by conflict. I was fifty-five years old and Julie was just twenty. It was not right. Poor Julie. But she was steadfast in wanting to become my wife. For me this was not love that was normal. It was all because of the sandalwood fans, the aromatic agarwood fans that meant money. If I had not had any money, the young woman would not have wanted this. Ah, sandalwood fans, the beautiful aroma of agarwood fans had preserved an old man who already smelt of the earth. It wasn’t right for Julie to marry this ancient one from Jakarta.
Hanging about my neck hugging me, Julie said, “I will look after you until you have to use a walking stick. You will live again, become young again, through our children.
I became weak and fell onto the bed.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door and, as it wasn’t locked, Mrs. Agus just walked in. Her eyes were red. Maybe her high blood pressure had come back. Anyway, she appeared to have tidied herself up and was thinking herself pretty. In fact, the bright red of her lipstick made me feel as if I was being approached by a tiger.
It is not right for Julie to become your wife,” she said. “I am the right one for you.” As she spoke, she moved towards Julie. Then she slapped Julie.
As Julie ran out, I made a run for the back door and then into the bathroom. I hid there for an hour. When I emerged into my room, thankfully Mrs. Agus was no longer anywhere to be seen.
Since that, I haven’t appeared at Mrs. Agus’ food stall. I closed down the post office box and moved to another post office.
About three months later, Julie arrived at my room. Sitting down, she slid a baby bottle into the lips of the baby in her arms. I was dumbstruck. Surely she wasn’t going to try it on me. I hoped she wasn’t about to go to the police station and report that her baby was my child, the child of a humble sandalwood fan trader.
“I’ve been living with a minibus driver,” she said.
“And had a baby right away?” I asked.
“No. His wife left him and she handed the baby over to me. I just took her. After all, where else was I going to go? My mother has high blood pressure. The important thing is I have a husband,” said Julie, cradling the baby.
I couldn’t say anything. My eyes filled with tears.
One day around a year later as I was pedaling my bike, I spotted Mrs. Agus shuffling along dragging a half-filled sack. I stopped. But she had forgotten who I was, and this shocked me deeply. Looking at the sack I realized. It was just full of plastic water bottles and old newspapers. Mrs. Agus had become a garbage collector. Jakarta had given her nothing but garbage.
“Where’s Julie now?” I asked.
“Julie passed away,” she answered.
“And where’s young Agus?” I asked again.
“At the intersection selling bottled water.”
“Where are you living?” I asked next.
“In doorways. There are plenty of doorways. You can just curl up anywhere.”
I was shocked.
“Who are you, mister?” she asked
“I’m a sandalwood fan trader.”
“Oh, my son-in-law, my son-in-law. Could you just give me a ride on the back of your bike!”
Straight away I gave her a ride to my room after getting rid of the sack of garbage. I told her to wash. I fetched her something to eat.
The following day I went with her to the psychiatric hospital and admitted her to a nursing home.
Depok, 10 February 2008
Sandalwood Fan (Kipas Cendana) was published in Kompas Daily in March 2008. Retrieved from https://cerpenkompas.wordpress.com/2008/03/30/.
Featured image credit: Back cover of EAP153/13/40: Syair Raksi Macam Baru  https://eap.bl.uk/archive-file/EAP153-13-40